Get The Questions Right

Peter Drucker’s idea that wrong answers are not that important while wrong questions can be devastating has drawn some comment.  The comments seem to indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of how planning is organized.

There is no such thing as the right answer to the wrong question.

Answers don’t matter much because you can adjust them.  Most answers are tactics.  Methods of imposing change on your world.  Questions on the other hand tend to be strategic.  They more closely parallel the development of goals and meaning and if wrong there may be no easy recovery.

Planning of any kind follows a pattern.

The strategy part is mostly questions:

  • Establish an over-arching purpose.
  • Define what things you will or won’t do to achieve it
  • Establish a time scale
  • Establish sub-goals along the time scale.
  • Discover and define the resources you have or will have to meet the sub-goals

The Tactical Part is mostly about answers:

  • Discover methods to achieve the sub-goals.  Could be tools like a health club membership, or a container like a registered retirement savings plan.  Maybe a debt reduction program.
  • Match the solutions against resources.
  • Notice and deal with conflicts.  Things like not enough resource to do everything or maybe if I get A, I cannot ever have F.

Logistics comes next

  • Take the organized and evaluated choices from tactics and implement them.
  • Review the outcome
  • Compare outcome to plan.
  • Revise as necessary

Drucker’s point is that if someone uses poor tactics, both a good strategy and a poor strategy drift.  A good strategy with good tactics succeeds and a poor strategy with good tactics fails quickly.  Either is a good answer.

People who spend little time on what they are trying to accomplish cannot choose tactics well because there is no reference frame.

You can see an early article here.  Korean Chef David Chang said, “We’re hoping to succeed; we’re okay with failure. We just don’t want to land in between.” 

Do not build plans that have the ability to land in between.  Good questions build good strategies.  Good answers prove them out.


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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